In his day job teaching screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin, Bryan Poyser will often find himself referring to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and ‘40s, an era that would seemingly be at odds with the complications found in his latest film “Love and Air Sex” where Facebook stalking and texts of dick pics can be the barriers to true romance. However, the filmmaker insists the opposite is true.
“I think Preston Sturges would’ve had a lot of fun with those kind of technological advances in his movies as well,” says Poyser, who may have watched more contemporary classics such as “When Harry Met Sally,” “Annie Hall” and “The 40-Year Old Virgin” in the runup to making his third directorial outing, but clearly relies on the sturdy structure and quick-witted repartee of Sturges and Howard Hawks’ finest to make it the uproarious architectural marvel it is.
A battle of the sexes that ultimately climaxes on the stage of an Alamo Drafthouse in a simulated air sex competition for the ages, the film stars Michael Stahl David and Zach Cregger as a pair of begrudging bachelors who find out their exes (Ashley Bell and Sara Paxton) are about to blow off some steam in Austin, Texas and decide to upend their plans. As I wrote upon first seeing the film at its premiere last year at SXSW under its original title “The Bounceback,” “Poyser and co-screenwriters David DeGrow Shotwell and Steven Waters always refrain from the obvious move, whether it’s the story which becomes gloriously entangled when all four are given other dating partner options than each other to the dialogue that’s sharp, witty and, when appropriate, unapologetically filthy.”
And yet it’s the first of Poyser’s films that he didn’t originate, following the devious love triangle comedy “Lovers of Hate” and the gleefully perverse coming-of-age tale “Dear Pillow,” so when I was fortunate enough to talk to the writer/director shortly before he’s set to hit the road with a theatrical tour of “Love and Air Sex,” complete with air sex demonstrations and competitions in select cities, to accompany the film’s release on VOD, I asked him about taking ownership of the project, how he works with actors on short prep time and his desire to become an air sex pioneer, at least as far as movies are concerned.
Was this a different experience for you, not having originated it yourself?
It definitely was. It was my third feature and the first one that I didn’t write from scratch. The company that was our sales agent for “Lovers of Hate,” my last feature, had gotten into production, and they had this script that they had optioned and they were looking for a director. Because it was set in Austin and because it was funny and raunchy, they thought of me. I had read a number of scripts after my film played at Sundance and none of them really interested me, but this one did. I just liked the core story, so I decided why not? It was, in a way, freeing to look at it as something that I’m just trying to make better rather than this is something I’m trying to force out of my subconscious all by myself. And it’s easier in a way.
And yet it’s a more sprawling film than you’ve done before, even if it’s has the same complexities of relationships that have been in your previous films scaled up.
Yeah, and that’s another reason why I wanted to do it. It was going to allow me to make my love letter to Austin movie. I didn’t grow up here, but I’ve lived here for the last 20 years and moved around a lot when I was a kid, so it was the first place that I lived that I really felt was my home when I came to UT Film School. I’ve seen it change a lot in the last 20 years, but the core character has remained the same. It’s a city that is in the national if not global consciousness in a way now that it hasn’t been before because of big events like South by Southwest and Austin City Limits and just its culture spreading around, but the selling point for me making the movie was that it would be my opportunity to portray Austin as I see it now, to shoot in all these great places that like the Broken Spoke, which is the honky-tonk club, and Justine’s, which is this fancy French restaurant that would not have existed in Austin [when I first got here] because it would’ve been too expensive, but now is part of the foodie culture of Austin. I just loved to have the opportunity to play on a bigger playground with this movie because the other films I’ve done were so small. They were like three characters and one location.
The ratio of those characters was always one woman to two men, and though it’s always been a strong female character, here you’ve leveled the playing field. Was that an exciting prospect for you?
Yeah. All three of the writers on the movie were guys, so by that nature, we’re going to be looking at the story from the guys’ perspective, but like you said, I wanted to make the female characters real, fully fleshed out people and I almost had more fun writing the female characters than I did the guy characters. The character of Kara was so fun to write and to come up with and develop with Sara Paxton that she was the character I spent the most time thinking about — what kind of music she listens to and what tattoos she would have and just what her attitude would be in each of these situations. So I definitely wanted to give the female characters a lot of agency, and not be just the girlfriend, and also just make them a lot cooler than the guys. That was not hard.
Is it true you actually had the cast write breakup notes to each other in preparation?
With these small indie films, it’s like you spend so much money on production, so you really have very limited money as far as bringing in the actors and doing rehearsals. All four of the lead actors live in Los Angeles, and in an ideal world, I would’ve had them for one or two weeks with just the four or the five of us to rehearse, but you can’t really do that. So I had a weekend with them to try to compress our rehearsal time and for me, a rehearsal is not really like let’s figure out how you’re going to say this line three weeks from now. It’s more about let’s try to do some fun stuff that will artificially accelerate the camaraderie that we need because these are four people who were supposed to be friends for many years.
It’s really just a matter of trying to figure out fun things to do like have them play badminton at my house and write these breakup letters to each other to give the actors an opportunity to fill in that backstory themselves about why they split up. So I had them go out by themselves in my house and write these breakup letters to each other and the person who was being broken up would be the one who’d actually read it out loud. It was really interesting and funny in that Zach Cregger, who plays Jeff, the obnoxious, wild character… his breakup note to Kara was really sincere and thoughtful, which is the exact opposite of what he’s like in the movie, but to me that was perfect because he is the most sensitive character in the whole film. That’s where all his obnoxious behavior comes from is because he’s a scared little boy who basically can’t live without this girl who he thinks he has had enough with. So it was really fun doing little games with them and I think it just helped solidify a relationship between all five of us quickly so that we would be comfortable with each other when we had to blaze through the schedule.
If they were all from Los Angeles, was it fun to bring them to Austin and see them interact with a place you knew so well?
It was great to have them come in and fall in love with Austin in the way that I did when I first moved here and most of them had spent some time in Austin before. Zach had been on tour with The Whitest Kidz U Know a couple times and Sara had been there for SXSW a couple times with movies that she was in, so they were each familiar with it, but it was also a big selling point for them to get them onboard.
Most of the time after we would finish the night or finish the week of shooting, I would be completely wrecked and exhausted and just go home, but then the cast would go out with the crew and party all night. [laughs] So they had this great experience as well where they got to explore a lot of the places where we were actually going to shoot the movie. Like the scene when they go to the dance club, Sara Paxton and a couple of the other cast members actually went there a few nights before we shot and some guy came up to her and asked her, “Is your boyfriend here?” And she says, “I don’t have a boyfriend” and he says, “Well, he’s an idiot.” We ended up using that pickup line in the movie — we gave it to Ralph’s character — just because it happened in that exact same place.
Having been to an air sex show at the Drafthouse, as entertaining as it is, it’s not necessarily the most cinematic of events. Was it difficult to translate that fun on the screen?
I’ve been to a couple air sex shows, too and they can be really uncomfortable. [laughs] We definitely amped it up. Not everybody is in ridiculous costumes. It’s not as raucous an audience. There’s a lot of stunts and embarrassed laughter that people are just like really getting into it, but I wanted to present this circus-like atmosphere. Our costume designer had a blast coming up with all these ridiculous costumes for people and we wanted to make the routines seem a little bit more polished than maybe they are in an actual airsex competition. But we also wanted it to be ridiculous and silly and over the top.
In editing the movie, I could just hear myself in the background on the audio track, yelling and laughing and doing color commentary as the people were doing their routines. To me, it was just great fun just seeing what the actors came up with for those routines. It is one of the most hilarious and embarrassing things I’d ever witnessed and that’s why I wanted to put it in the movie. That was something that was not in the original script. In the original script, the guys are doing like a Guitar Hero competition and then they lose and it’s just one silly thing that they’re doing at the beginning of the movie. Thinking what I would do with the movie, I wanted to add that element and then it became a plot point and really turned into a significant part of the film, just because when I first witnessed the air sex competition, I thought this is so ridiculous and outrageous and so ripe with comic possibilities for a couple at odds with each other that someone is going to use this in a movie and I wanted to be the first one to do it.
It’s actually integral now to the film’s marketing. Was it an inspiration for the touring roadshow idea?
Yeah, it’s been really fun conceiving it and putting it together. We ran this Kickstarter campaign a couple months ago to raise money and to take the movie on the road and at the time when we were putting it together, we didn’t know if we were going to have a more traditional distribution deal, so in working with Tribeca, we’ve tried to come up with a plan where what we’re doing is going to compliment what they’re doing and vice versa.
With the roadshow, we’ll bring as many of the cast and crew and I’ll be going to a lot of these screenings to present the movie and then have a local air sex champion do an air sex demonstration live inside the theater. Then in a few of the locations like New York and Austin, there will be a true air sex competition that happens after the movie where people who see the film will maybe get inspired and get up onstage and perform or they can just witness a train wreck of what’s going to happen. Tribeca’s opening the movie in five cities. We’ll be doing kickoff events in each one of those and then we’ll be doing a few cities on our own, just one-off, one-night only events in LA, Seattle and Dallas, a couple other cities too, so it’s been fun trying to add something a little different, to expand the movie experience beyond just people showing up and sitting down. The first event is on February 7th in New York. It should be fun. We want to make sure people get their money’s worth.
“Love and Air Sex” is now available on VOD, iTunes, Amazon Instant, Vudu, and Google Play. It opens theatrically in New York on February 7th at the Cinema Village, February 14th in Austin at the Alamo Drafthouse – Slaughter Lane, February 20th in Dallas at the Texas Theater, February 21st in San Francisco at the Roxie Theater, March 1st in Los Angeles at the Majestic Crest and April 19th in Seattle at the SIFF Cinema Uptown.